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I can’t help but get the feeling that kids today have a different relationship to music than I did in High School. This is NOT going to be a “what’s wrong with kids today?” whine-fest. I despise those. I’m not complaining about the difference, but there is a difference. It isn’t good, it isn’t bad. The texture of life is different now than it was back then, so the experiences we had in the ‘80s (or ‘70s, ‘60s, and ‘50s, for that matter) are different from what people are having now. And one of the key places I see it is in music.

When I was growing up, I had a hard time finding people whose musical tastes were in line with mine. I dug The Buzzcocks, The Dead Kennedys, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. But more than any of them, I loved Joy Division. And in my late-‘80s affluent suburban high school, there weren’t many Joy Division fans. The few kids that I knew who had similar musical obsessions tended to get irritated by the way in which I expressed my own obsessions, so I parted ways with them.

In order to find music that I enjoyed, I had to travel by bus (as I had no car and no license) to get to a hole-in-the-wall record store downtown that always smelled vaguely bad and was the only place where I was ever hit by a genuine wave of claustrophobia. And I had to deal with the classic record store employees: the know-it-all who drips with condescension as he informs you that he doesn’t have the record you are looking for; the slightly disjointed young man who treats every record as if it were sick child, in need of constant care; and, importantly for me, The Sage who was willing to bestow vinyl on just the right acolyte. It was from The Sage that I first received Joy Division’s Warsaw demo (on a crappy tape, not vinyl), and it changed me. I get hit with an almost unbearable nostalgia every time I hear any of the songs on that recording. They aren’t the best. In fact, it’s not really a great set of songs. But it changed the way I look at music.

And that, more than anything, is what has changed. The Warsaw demo wasn’t that great, but I had been let into someone’s inner circle. I had to hunt and pick, proving to The Sage that I “deserved” the demo. I didn’t know much music, but the music I knew was intensely analyzed, scrutinized, and deconstructed. My musical knowledge was a mile deep, but an inch wide. Young people today display the opposite: knowledge that is an inch deep, but a mile wide. I don’t know which is better. I don’t know if one has to be better than the other, but they are different experiences. Someone who wants the Warsaw demo now can just go to Amazon and order it. It will get to you in a couple of weeks. No need to cultivate a relationship with the guy who smells vaguely like burning rope, no need to get verbally abused by the weasely guy behind a record store counter. Music is available in ways that have eliminated the hunt and the search. All that you need to do now to get access to entire worlds of music you’ve never heard before is know a web address.

My son is fifteen, and for a long time he was not a huge music lover. He has been forced into very catholic tastes, as he used to listen to psych folk with me, punk and early alternative with his step-mother, polka and big band swing with his grandfather, praise music with his grandmother, and country with his mother. He enjoys music when it is on, and has taken to listening to music in order to fall asleep (something I remember doing all the time, but couldn’t do today). I gave him my fully-loaded mp3 player, and he went from listening to whatever was on to having definite tastes overnight. He didn’t need to pick through old record bins, network with weird guys in a downtown hole-in-the-wall shop, or read fanzines. Whole worlds of music (specialized worlds, but worlds nonetheless) were given to him, fully formed.

One day recently, we were driving somewhere, and my son said, “Dad, I like that Brian Eno stuff, but I’d like something a bit more… I don’t know… rockin’, I guess. Any suggestions?”

I wanted to say, “Nope. Find it yourself.” But that was just an old man being spiteful.

“Look for David Bowie’s Low. I think you’ll like it.” It took me years of searching to run into something as perfect as Low. And after years of searching for something like it, I came to treasure it. And now, with my son asking me just the right question, I had become The Sage. But Low probably isn’t going to change his life, the way Warsaw changed mine. He is going to search the Internet for the album, hopefully not download it illegally, and then move on to something else. But, I guess, that is what kids do. And that is, as they say, what it is.

I can’t map my experience onto his: he has to be allowed to have his own experiences and make his own way, particularly with something as intensely personal as music. Technology has changed how we deal with music. The record store is gone, and maybe that is a good thing. People have easy access to things that they never would have had access to before. Just a few minutes ago I heard Trader Horne, a band I hadn’t heard in years. I heard them on Last.fm, and decided to switch over to the Trader Horne station. In rapid succession, I heard Wooden Horse, Fotheringay, Dr. Strangely Strange, and Fresh Maggots. But since discovering these bands (all since the public availability of the Internet), none of them has made the same impact on me that Joy Division did back then. I found them without the hunt. I stumbled onto them, and that made a difference for the worse.

The Internet has allowed everyone to have The Sage and the Contemptuous Know-It-All in our homes. The hunt isn’t as exciting when it can be done at the same time as cooking a Hot Pocket. But I can’t help feeling a little bit of jealousy every time my son says, “So, Dad… Fairport Convention is pretty awesome, huh?” Yes, they are. And you get to grow up listening to them.

Damnit.

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2 Comments

  1. Good read. Ultimately the Internet is a tool, and like any tool it’s effectiveness is dependent on how you use it. You trusted one Sage, your son has access to networks of them. What if your Sage had steered you in another direction? What about his own Sage? And what about the bands you both would have loved if you had just had access to them thru a much greater networking resource? 

    Back in the day you were one of my Sages, and I treasure the experience of musical discovery as you do. I revered the tapes you made for me, and one of my hidden joys was sneaking into your room instead of spending time with the rest of the family to listen to the Cure- Disintegration and NIN Pretty Hate Machine. But I also deeply respect and would never want to give up the ability to purchase and discover music that I have now thru the Internet. 

    When I started djing I quickly discovered that the records I cared about the most were rarely stocked in any record store, and if they were they were cherrypicked by others sometimes before they even hit the sale floor. My dj mentor and friend who was a record buyer at a big Hollywood record store freely admits this. But that still didn’t stop me from regularly journeying to about a dozen record stores around the Los Angeles area. And yes I found some good records, but to get the best I would have to become the Sage as he was. Thru the Internet I began to network with people who shared my interest in certain sounds, and who were trainspotting the djs I might get to only physically hear once or twice a year, even living in a major metropolis such as LA. And I discovered that many of the records these jocks were playing might never be released at all, just passed between a select group of djs sometimes for months even a year or two before release, sometimes remaining forever as a white label vinyl release of less than 1000( which allowed artists immunity from copyright infringements ). 

    But I also discovered that even if the record stores I could travel to couldn’t or wouldn’t carry these tracks there were record stores I could access online that would, and that I could get these treasures for the right price. Sure i had to pay a premium, and pay an arm and a leg for international shipping, but i could own music that perhaps only a thousand others could also have.  Some of my most treasured pieces of vinyl are these white labels would have been impossible to obtain without the Internet or assaulting a major artist.

    That was ten years ago. Now between blogs, pandora, YouTube, last, and various social networks i can discover and download these same types of releases for less than a couple of bucks. The Internet has helped me rediscover lost jazz records from the 60s and discover amazing artists who I am able to connect with based on our global interconnectedness. Currently i am working on a collaboration with an artist i have never met face to face who lives in Japan. He and I both attended the same online class with a tutor on a third continent. I am very grateful for the incredible time we live in. 

  2. One thing that’s definitely different nowadays is how discovery of something is less about being dedicated to the hunt. Back in the high school days of the late 80s/early 90s, I could hear about certain things, but it was very challenging to experience them first hand. I was never the musicologist you were, so I’ll use a different sort of example. The Prisoner is a good one. Back then, I had heard about it, gotten bits and pieces of information, but in order to actually SEE the whole thing, I’d have to hunt it down. And that meant really hunting. VHS tapes of a cult British TV show from the 60s? Yeah, you had to ask around and fail a lot, to the point that you decide it’s not worth pursuing. Even just seeking out info ABOUT it that was reliable was challenging. Some guy in the comic shop might talk about it, but even then, you’re getting his filter, let alone if he’s even being honest.
    Now? I can get the series via Netflix with the click of a button. Reliable information with a Google search. No need to decide to be dedicated before knowing if it’s worth it.

    One of the other elements our children’s generation has an advantage with is not having to filter through the same kind of rumors and lies we did. Because one could find a Sage out there, but you can just as easily find the Bullshit Sage. Like, I’m sure you remember the KIND of person (I can’t think of specific names, but you’ll recall the type) who would swear blind that he had seen, say, the Star Wars Episodes 1-3. In the 80s. Because they were small movies that had totally came out in the 70s. Like, he saw them in some small second-run movie theatre in Chicago, but they never played around here. You know the kind of stuff I mean– blatant lies, but you couldn’t be COMPLETELY sure that they were lies, because, how could you check. Now, again, a quick Google sorts that out.


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